NEW YORK -- A Madison Square Garden executive was ready to
quit her high-salaried position -- and was nearly fired over her
inability to handle work responsibilities -- in the months before
she sued New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for sexual harassment,
a top MSG official testified Wednesday.
Steve Mills, MSG Sports president and CEO, was the first witness
called as Thomas and MSG opened their defense in federal court
against the charges made in a $10 million lawsuit by Anucha Browne
Mills, who attended Princeton with Browne Sanders' sister Ruth,
testified that he never heard a single complaint from the plaintiff
about Thomas using profanity or making inappropriate sexual contact
until a Dec. 15, 2005, e-mail.
By then, Mills testified, Browne Sanders had already approached
him in tears to say she was overwhelmed by work and wanted to leave
her position as vice president of marketing and business
operations. In the meeting a month earlier in his office, Mills
said, a weepy Browne Sanders "told me she's lost the confidence of
the people she worked with, and she can't do this anymore. I
agreed." Mills said he also agreed to keep her on the job while
she looked for a position outside MSG.
Their conversation came three months after a disastrous
financial forecast meeting where Browne Sanders could not answer
questions posed by Garden chairman James Dolan, Mills said.
After that August 2005 meeting, MSG vice chairman Hank Ratner
said, "We should fire her right now," Mills recalled.
Dolan, whose deposition in the case was played Tuesday by the
plaintiff, stepped in and saved Browne Sanders' job, Mills said
during 2½ hours of direct testimony. A smiling Thomas seemed buoyed
by the testimony after four days of sitting through the plaintiff's
Browne Sanders, a married mother of three and former
Northwestern basketball star, was hired by the Knicks in late 2000.
She was fired in January 2006, and claimed the dismissal came after
she complained to MSG management about her mistreatment.
Under cross-examination, Mills was asked if the emotional
November 2005 meeting was sparked by an e-mail containing
allegations that Knicks star guard Stephon Marbury had called
Browne Sanders a "black bitch."
"No, that's not accurate," Mills testified, although he
recalled Browne Sanders referring to a potentially "explosive
situation" within the Knicks organization.
Browne Sanders has alleged that Thomas initially treated her with
disdain, including a litany of profanity, before becoming
inappropriately physical and encouraging her to take their
relationship "off site."
But Mills said the only mention of the two going "off site"
came from Browne Sanders, who wanted the Knicks coach to attend an
overnight offseason meeting in Connecticut. And Mills said when
Thomas was told not to hug Browne Sanders after a December 2005
incident, the basketball Hall of Famer replied, "OK, cool."
The Garden claims she was dismissed for a failure to "fulfill
professional responsibilities," and Mills testified to a number of
problems that occurred on her watch.
Prior to Mills' appearance, presiding U.S. District Court Judge
Gerard Lynch said Browne Sanders' attorneys had presented a "weak
case" that the Knicks coach was involved in the woman's firing --
one of the allegations made in her suit.
"Of all the claims in this case, this is the one that looks to
be a stretch," Lynch said before he nonetheless denied a defense
motion to dismiss that claim. He said it was an issue better left
to the jury at this point.